Setting Behavior Standards

By Jon Harrison

“That’s just the way he is.”

I remember my supervisor telling me that after I witnessed another leader berate and belittle an employee in front of fifteen other people in a meeting early on in my career at Caterpillar.   I asked my supervisor why that behavior was allowed, and he said, “that’s just the way he is.” 

Even as a young employee that comment never made sense to me.   We had clear standards and something called “standard operating procedures” for manufacturing, engineering, HR and IT processes, but in terms of behavior I saw no such “standards.” The impact of that one meeting was huge.  The employee getting berated was, of course, embarrassed and angry.  Everyone else in the room left disengaged and wondering if he / she might be “next.”   In just a few minutes, a leader had made a more dramatic “statement” about the organization’s culture than any “vision statement,” “mission statement” or “values plaque” on the wall.

Has your organization established a set of clear, behavioral standards to which all employees, and I mean ALL, are to adhere to?   If not, I firmly believe it is the most crucial step in organizational excellence.  It should become the foundation of everything that occurs in your organization.  It can be viewed as a cute / trendy “HR” exercise, or it can become your organization’s “DNA.”

Creating a set of “core values” isn’t as difficult as it may sound.  It’s really very easy to think about the behaviors you would want from any employee, regardless of the type of business.  Behaviors like “integrity,” “teamwork” and “respect” come to mind.   As the owner, CEO or top decision-maker, you can also canvass your employees and ask them what behaviors they would like to see exemplified by every team member.  My experience has shown that the behaviors they will suggest will be very close to those the top leader would choose (but he or she can always ensure the final list includes any “musts” regardless of what employees choose).  

 For example, the final list may look like the following:





Embracing Change


The next step would be to then “spell out” what each of these behaviors looks like in practice.  For example:

Teamwork:  We willingly assist each other (regardless of differences in age, tenure, cultural background, or departmental responsibilities), as we serve our customers, and never “bad mouth” or blame other departments / individual team members if we, as an organization, fail to meet customer or other stakeholder expectations.

There is incredible value in creating a “new day” at your organization by establishing or re-establishing behavioral standards over time.  You’ll be amazed at the transformation that can occur in a relatively short time.  Trust me, I’ve experienced this first-hand. 

Once those standards are established, or re-established, what will you do if you have employees (leaders or anyone) who are not living up to those behavioral standards?   We tackle that subject thoroughly in our leadership sessions and will address that topic in our article next month.